Lecture flipping- part 5 (What the students thought)

After 3 lectures in flipped format, I asked the students to take part in a survey and feedback their experience with the approach. About ¼ of students (n=131) responded, a pretty good rate I guess. I tried to ask questions that suggested both positive and negative experiences and asked for responses on a Likert scale.

Having videos available, at least as a learning and revision resource, was almost universally seen as positive, and almost all students liked the videos. The picture was more mixed for the specific use of the resources in flip teaching- not all who liked the videos found that they could learn well from them, and some were not keen on the peer discussion element.


Given the choice, almost half of all students would prefer the traditional lecture; a small number explicitly said in the free-text response that they learned better that way. I have to admit I was tempted to phrase the question “…rather just let the lecture wash over me while I daydream…”  Many felt a bit bowled over by the concept and the unconventional “lecture” experience.


The majority of students felt reasonably briefed about the new approach, but some had issues with Nearpod.


It was reassuring to see that most students at least tried to watch all videos (1-2) relevant to an upcoming lecture even though I only just managed to upload them 2-3 days in advance. Only a small proportion supplemented their online learning with reading. For my generation, that is pretty amazing- textbooks were the starting and often end points of all learning and revision. I have to admit that because I took it for granted, I did not explicitly urge them to read. We do recommend a textbook and even indicate suitable chapter numbers for each lecture, but text book reading has become a niche approach to learning it seems. Then again, if biochemistry is not your main subject you are unlikely to invest £50 in a textbook.


Lecture flipping- part 4

Seasoned flip teachers generally agree that the online provision of lecture videos is the less important part of classroom flipping. The whole purpose is to free up contact time for more meaningful interactions, problem solving, peer discussions and the like. Small groups allow for genuine student-teacher discussions and collaborative learning with bespoke advice and feedback. In a very large lecture unit, this is more difficult- but not impossible.

In my flip teaching experiment, I’ve used Nearpod again to deliver online quizzes. These take the shape of online slideshows (originally PowerPoints converted to pdf and uploaded to the Nearpod server) into which “functional slides” can be inserted. These could be quizzes, polls, free-text questions and (the most fun) a “draw it” exercise. With pre-set correct answers, the quiz is clearly the easiest to deploy in a very large class because of the automated evaluation (more below).


Trouble is, multiple choice quizzes are pedagogically quite limited tools and tell you little about the current conceptual understanding (or possibly misconceptions) of the students. The “draw it” activity reveals more:


Still, the majority of activities here were MCQ questions. One weakness of Nearpod is that the functioning interactive quizzes have to be in “Nearpod format”, which means slotting a limited number of words into a fixed form. The number of possible answers is not fixed, but images can’t really be included which means that I have to ask students to look at the “question slide”, remember which answer was correct, and then proceed to the fixed-format actual “voting slide” (the black one, bottom right). Works OK, but is tedious.


Students ideally would have watched the video(s) and attempted the voluntary homework before coming to the lecture. I then talked through the results and explained the answers. The “Post session report” was a great help because I could see which questions were easy and which needed more explanation. I also shared that report –several dozen pages long and available as a pdf – on Blackboard to allow students to check their own results by scrolling down to each question. To keep confidentiality, I had asked them to sign into the homework exercise with their student ID number, but apparently that hasn’t been clear enough… Giving feedback on a “Draw it” exercise took more time (the pdf report shows each participant’s drawing and I added a short note for each), but in the end there was only a finite number of wrong ideas.


After that, the fun started. The homework function of Nearpod is actually a more recent development; at the core is the ability to have live, interactive presentations. Tapping into the rich cultural heritage of this country, I dubbed these interactive sessions “pub quizzes” because that’s what they were, minus the beer: Students were invited to get together in teams (as far as the rigid lecture theatre setup allowed), download the Nearpod presentation according to the PIN I gave out and sign in with their team name. The presentations included a bit of fun to live up to the spirit of the pub quiz. Then there were then about five or so MCQ questions that had a real-life connection, required a bit of problem solving and were a little more challenging than what they would see in an exam. Turns out that coming up with these questions was one of the hardest things in the whole lecture flipping experiment! I explained each question and then gave them 2 minutes to discuss it in their team. Full-on chaos ensued- in a good way. I made them vote, and thanks to the excellent wifi capacity of the lecture theatre got virtually instant voting results from all 100-odd teams, which I then discussed briefly.


The live sessions generated a post-session report on my Nearpod accound as well, which again I made available. Half the fun of evaluating this report was in seeing the team names students had chosen. The first page alone included “1Pussypatrol”, “Add me on Grindr”, “ARAWRBOOBYBOOBY” and “asexual”. No lack of diversity there.

Lecture flipping- part 3

film strip


On to the geeky bit- the technology behind the flipped lecture. I haven’t uploaded the videos (yet) to youtube so an icon will have to do…

Even before I decided to volunteer for the biochemistry lectures and before I planned “lecture videos”, I was fascinated by science videos on YouTube- asapscience, Earth Unplugged, Minute Earth and especially Minutephysics, Myles Power, Periodic videos, PHD comics, SmarterEveryDay, thebrainscoop, Veritasium, Vihart and Vsauce. Creating something, merging science with a little bit of art and creativity sounded like fun, and I wondered if I wanted my own science channel. Trouble is, all of the above “content creators” (as YouTube calls them) make videos with pretty high production values –read: recorded under semi-professional conditions with very good cameras and lighting. My first attempts at creating videos the way Henry Reich does for Minutephysics (time-lapse recording of hand-drawn doodles on paper, a beautifully simple version of professional videoscribing as e.g. seen in RSA animate) were not encouraging. Much easier to start from animated Powerpoints and record screencasts. Without a vast amount of research, I settled on Snagit to do the screencasting. It’s very easy to use and cheaper than the full Camtasia studio. Snagit does not include editing, so I decided to subscribe to Adobe Creative cloud as well (affordable with educational discount) so I can use Premiere Pro, although chances are Camtasia studio would have been cheaper in the long run. It’s a shame that Adobe decided to exclude their screen capture tool (part of Captivate) from the Creative Cloud.

Having watched a few traditionally recorded lectures done with screen capture technology, I found them unbearably slow compared with the snazzy YouTube channels above. For a succinct style, I scripted the videos and created the Powerpoints alongside the script. I created those ppts based on the previously existing lectures, but soon found I wanted my own style and needed to include way more animation than would be practical for a classical lecture. After a while I found that I needed to make those animations move slowly (or fade in/out over eg 2 seconds instead of 1) because the 10-15 fps recording rate of Snagit otherwise made things jump awkwardly. For the voiceover I recorded my reading the script with Audacity on a Rode Podcaster microphone, using a fleece jumper around the mic (and myself!) to achieve a reasonably dry sound. This was good fun and surprisingly easy. Some room for improvement though- I’d like the sound even drier, and I’d prefer to speak standing up rather than hunched over the desk mic. Should be easy to fix. Having recorded the screencast (just clicking my way through the ppt), I spliced video and voice together in Premiere Pro to make text or images appear just at the right time. It took a while to get the hang of it and arrive at a routine for cutting, moving, rate stretching etc, but in the end this was a very satisfying thing to do. In some of the other videos I edited in other clips, for example of molecular dynamics animations that I found on the web. I’ve yet to learn how to produce animations of rotating protein structures but that’ll come.

Making these videos was very enjoyable, but also extremely time consuming –about 2-3 full days of work per lecture-, and having started production on the first one I realised I would only be able to convert 3 lectures to videos this year. Probably just as well because this was a trial run, and it makes sense to learn from the first round before rolling out the flipped approach to all of my lectures in the unit.

Each of these videos shrunk the 50 minute lecture down to 15-25 minutes split into two videos or just one. This was intentional, so students would be able to go through material for revision more quickly, but it also meant that I had to talk quite fast. I would have to wait for student feedback to see if they agreed.

Lecture flipping- part 2

communication cycles

Moving on to the design of my flipped lecture experiment. So here are the principles I wanted to apply in my flip teaching experiment: As a resource for self-paced learning, I would make videos available that would replace the teaching of “stuff” in classical lecture format. Having individually worked through the videos at their own pace, the students would be able to do simple exercises via Nearpod (next post) and submit them online. In the original lecture time slot, I would discuss the solutions to exercises, spending more time on those that seemed more problematic. There would then be a second round of Nearpod quizzes during the lecture, this time (as in Eric Mazur’s classes) allowing peer-to-peer discussions, and again online submission of answers from mobile devices. These pub quizzes would be more challenging and more real-world, thus hopefully more interesting or even inspiring, and perhaps answering the question “why do we have to learn all that stuff?”.

The two rounds of quiz would result in two cycles of learning, articulation of understanding and feedback, which should mean –for those who actually take part- in much better learning.

This pedagogical side is summarised it in the illustration above. The chart analyses the different elements of this flipped lecture according to Diana Laurillard’s Conversational framework (Rethinking University Teaching: A Conversational Framework for the Effective Use of Learning Technologies, Routledge 2001, or more recent publication). Showing off what I’ve learned in my DTCE course last semester…

The left hand side shows what Laurillard calls the Teacher communication cycle. Traditionally, the first arrow (here: video) is the lecture, and the two following arrows are the exam (“students articulating their conceptual understanding”, or just ticking boxes in MCQ) and the exam mark as feedback. In fairness, we have a lecture-by-lecture online quiz as well as an end-of-term exam here, but both are summative (marked). Additional cycles of exercises with formative feedback were something my “focus group” had also requested- last summer I quizzed my personal advisees what they thought might improve this lecture unit. The peer communication cycle on the right is new and hasn’t been tried in this large lecture unit before.

Lecture flipping- part 1


So, I’ve very recently learned (from a student!) about the ADDIE model for instructional design, and I think it makes sense to follow that model here. Let’s talk about the analysis phase!

Much of this actually happened more than half a year ago, so this account is probably edited with a bit of hindsight. Last summer I volunteered to take over the first half (10 lectures) of our 1st year introductory biochemistry lecture. As a biochemistry graduate I had a rush of nostalgia thinking about topics like lipid structures that I had not come across in my research for a while. Apart from the desire to go back to my roots, as well as to be seen to be taking on more teaching while I had the opportunity to choose what interested me, I was also keen to try the lecture flipping approach discussed in an earlier post.

The class is compulsory for all but a handful of our year 1 life science students and this semester had about 530 students enrolled (not that one ever sees that many). About 100 of these are biochemists “by name” while the rest vary in the degree of enthusiasm about chemistry and molecular life sciences in general. When I first met the students I asked who disliked chemistry or felt very insecure about it, versus who thought it was a piece of cake. There were many more in the first camp. It is safe to assume that for the majority biochemistry is something they grin and bear somehow rather than expect to enjoy. Some, but not many, brought very good A-level chemistry knowledge. For the purposes of instructional design, it’s safe to consider them novices. There was my challenge!

The unit has been very well run for years and I had an experienced colleague to guide me. Having looked through the material and the six-page list of detailed learning objectives (just for “my” half of the course!), it struck me how much factual “stuff” has to be learned. Of course it was no different in my student days. Somehow the memorization of amino acid structures and metabolic pathways is a character-building rite of passage. The dilemma is that there’s only time to teach the “stuff”, and we keep our fingers crossed that deep understanding of concepts and the ability to apply that conceptual knowledge to new problems come as a byproduct.


Twiddla: online interactive Whiteboard

first twiddla


But before that, a brief interlude. I had long been looking for a sort of collaborative whiteboard that allows students to annotate and comment on a single document such that each comment would be immediately visible to all participants. I’m aware of shared documents in eg Google docs or Dropbox, but I wanted something a little freer where students could circle around stuff, add notes etc. I think I first came across Twiddla in this post on emergingedtech. As the post says, these kinds of tools tend to come and go, and it’s one of the frustrations in this business that any online tool that works well this year might not be around next year.

Anyhow, Twiddla is pretty uncomplicated and allows you to upload documents, pictures or webpages as background to a whiteboard that can then be annotated by everyone who is sent the URL for that particular “meeting”. Everyone can highlight stuff, draw lines and boxes around text or images, and add notes. In this case the learning objective was to understand the conventions of writing a lab report. A colleague had written a very nice “bad example” lab report which I had turned (crudely) from a pdf document via screenshots into images. It is possible to upload a regular pdf as background but I didn’t have the “proper” Acrobat software to trim the pages I didn’t want off the original document.

Having inserted text and images as background, I sent the link to the 8 students with minimal instructions and invited them to annotate “everything that was wrong” with the “bad example”. One issue I had to explain is that the “erase” function needs to be used judiciously- comments, highlights and background are erased together, so all would be lost. However, anything in the “comment layer” can be selected and moved or deleted individually, and Ctrl+z for “undo” works in the whiteboard.

As the figure shows, the students had no trouble finding their way around the whiteboard and annotated heavily but in a very orderly way. They also used individual colours for underlining and freehand highlighting (I think- don’t know who did what), but it’s a pity that text boxes can’t be colour-coded. Instead I suggested using the initials. One student got in very early and added loads of comments, which made it less rewarding for the rest of the group. But I suppose there’s no straightforward way of encouraging a more synchronised collaboration unless it’s really essential for the task.

I think this worked well as a preparation for a face-to-face discussion, but it was a bit tricky in the tutorial session to work from what had turned into a very complex annotated document. Calling on the individual students to explain their comments did not seem a particularly intelligent way to go about it. Maybe I’ll invite the group, or smaller groups of students, to summarize the take home messages instead of trawling through the whole whiteboard myself with everyone watching. I think there is plenty of potential for other kinds of collaborative tasks with this tool.

A flipping experiment



This is not going to land me in Cory Arcangel’s “Sorry I haven’t posted -Inspiring Apologies From Today’s World Wide Web”… but December through February have been madly busy and it’s hard to get back into the habit of writing when that’s not your natural impulse.

January and February saw one of my boldest experiments using digital technology in the service of teaching, and I will blog about my experience in the next couple of posts (honest). With a combination of lecture videos and digital pub quizzes, I had a go at making lecture flipping work for an undergraduate class of 500 students.

My motivation to try this experiment came from a number of places. The idea of the flipped classroom is probably familiar enough. Activities traditionally done in the classroom and at home are flipped, such that students first encounter new concepts in private study with the help of specially prepared materials and often a form of lecture video. This knowledge is then applied in a collaborative way in the classroom, often via “real-world” problem-solving exercises. Having heard of successful applications of this approach in an educational conference, it immediately made sense to me. The format of university lectures has not changed for centuries. My memory of sitting in lectures is mainly one of defining the territory- most Chemistry textbooks were vastly overstuffed, so it was essential to get a feeling for how deep the professor would dig into the material. If memory serves, the actual learning happened at home rather than in the lecture theatre, listening to the god-like professors at ungodly hours of the day (yes, we did actually have 8am starts back then- unthinkable now…) If we assume that everyone has an optimal pace and an optimal time for learning, it seems unlikely that the broadcast medium of the lecture is “just right” for more than a handful of students. It also doesn’t allow for active learning, unless you count adding notes to lecture handouts as active.

Another inspiration was Eric Mazur’s concept of peer teaching, a variation of active learning that seems to work even in very large classes and fosters a shift from rote memorization to conceptual understanding. Watching the students in the video (from about 54:25) interact to discuss their understanding is a joy and something I wanted for my lectures. To be sure, these are Harvard Pre-Med students, so our students might be marginally less driven, but there’s no reason to think that peer discussions of real-world problem sets wouldn’t benefit their learning too.

So, more in the next couple of posts!